Buried under tons of rock, drowning in water, losing air, all they had left was the will to survive. Hope runs deep.
While drilling for coal deep in the Quecreek mine, 18 miners hit an old abandoned shaft filled with ground water. Instantly, the four-foot high core caverns begin to flood. Nine miners escape, but nine others are trapped. They include fathers and sons, husbands and brothers of this small, very working class Pennsylvania town. Over the course of the next 77 hours, a group of dedicated rescuers (and occasional political opportunists) will race to save the desperate men. Locating themselves in a "higher ground" portion of the mine, they instinctively build walls against the rushing water and try to survive the bitter cold and bad "black damp" air. Eventually, a lifeline arrives from the surface allowing fresh oxygen and limited communication. But time is still running out for the men. While massive pumps try to slow the build-up of freezing water, drills used to bore a rescue hole are malfunctioning or traveling to the site from distances too far away. Family and friends gather to wait out the ongoing drama and soon the question becomes which will reach the miner's first…the deadly waters or the life-saving rescue cart. In the summer of 2002, a community and an entire nation was mesmerized by the true-life trauma and test of human fortitude known as The Pennsylvania Miners' Story.
An appropriate subtitle for The Pennsylvania Miner's Story would be the simple and evocative Big Men Crying. Indeed, no other movie in recent memory features as many burly, tough-as-nails examples of machismo bawling like newborn babies. The copious eye flows are indeed understandable, considering this claustrophobic tale of an underground cave disaster shows how unforeseen circumstances push the limits of individual endurance to the point of emotional exhaustion and desperation. Who can fault a family man for breaking down like one of the walking wounded when there's a spouse and offspring to consider? But there seems to be a real intentional need to show these hardworking, jagged rock crackers as incessantly sensitive weeping machines. Perhaps it's to soften their beer drinking, rough talking exterior. Past presentations of such true-life tests of human resourcefulness in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds have offered stone-faced men of cold determination made of the same mantle as their menacing equipment bores through daily. But The Pennsylvania Miners' Story emphasizes that real men not only eat quiche, but they enjoy squirting a few when need be. Indeed, the bouts of emotional outbursts between the trapped friends say more about their connection with each other than any dozen carefully crafted lines of dialogue ever could. It's genuinely refreshing to see a movie that is not afraid to let men show their proper emotions. It's also uplifting to view a group of people fighting for survival while all the time questioning their fate with honesty and determination.
This is a gripping story that is moving without being manipulative. Director David Frankel understands the dynamics of creating camaraderie and caring amongst his characters. While it's true that the brief, overly broad personal sketches at the beginning of the film fail to stick with the audience's memory (when will scriptwriters and filmmakers learn that a 30-second scene of someone puttering around their home does not equal instantly recognizable three-dimensionality?), at least the film has the good sense to know this fact. At several crucial moments in the narrative, individual names are spoken and quick cuts to the actors playing these people are made. Eventually we discover and remember whom "Flathead," "Moe," and "Harpo" are. This gradual recognition makes the moments of emotion far more believable. There are also some very realistic, random touches offered to remove the stink of fictional re-enactment from the narrative. As the miners prepare for their descent, there is a ritualistic exchange of off-hand comments (a comical seven dwarves reference of "hi-ho") that reinforces authenticity.
If there is one big flaw in The Pennsylvania Miners' Story, it's how it treats its ending. We only witness two reunions amongst the family members, which seems unfair and callous. There are unresolved and unexplained aspects to the film, questions, like how a 30" drill bit creates a hole large enough to bring up men with chests and waists in the low 40s? And what happened afterward, since many of the characters vow never to return to the mine again? While they don't distract from the overall impact of the film, The Pennsylvania Miners' Story would have been incredible had it been told completely.
This made for television motion picture is offered in a full screen image that is decent, if far from perfect. Occasionally the dark images onscreen are peppered with the telltale gray pixels of compression, which is strange, since aside from a 90-minute movie, there are no extras on the disc. No trailers or ads. No biographies or additional information. But this is not the only regrettable aspect to this package. Disney's cover art and menu screen for this DVD can best be described as disingenuously jingoistic. The front photo and logo deceptively recall the 9/11-style hero worship of police and fire officials (who rightfully deserved it) who braved life and limb to rescue as many victims as they could from Ground Zero. How people who dig coal for a living suddenly become acquainted with these unselfish civil servants is problematic. The more disheartening feature is the menu screen. A very touching silhouette of the trapped men is superimposed over a blurred, waving American flag, red, white, and blue fluttering symbolically around them. While there is no arguing their bravery and grit for survival, when exactly did they become anointed as "America's Tragedy" (like the Dallas Cowboys or Atlanta Braves being labeled "America's Team")? This is a localized event turned into a national media spectacle by our 24-hour news mentality, not the other way around. And while it's probable that the miners don't mind being linked to current heroes in the press (namely, our soldiers across the ocean), Disney's design job seems like opportunist patriotism at best, which is too bad since really nothing, save for a few more minutes at the end, are needed to make The Pennsylvania Miners' Story more riveting or rewarding. This is a moving, inspiring true story.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
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